CoPs and PLCs…an obvious choice

Communities of Practice (CoPs) and Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are groups of people that have a similar interest, such as those that share the same or related jobs, and discuss best practices, either in person or virtually (Bouchard, 2012).  The two terms are very similar but are often used in different places; CoPs in business and PLCs in education, typically (Bouchard, 2012).  PLCs can support learning by bringing people together to share information about a particular topic who have varied knowledge and experiences.   The varied backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge of the members of a PLC enables them to contribute to each other’s understanding a topic, material or situation and allows for more efficient problem solving.   PLCs seems to be a new spin on a very old concept.  The old adage, “two heads are better than one” comes to mind.  As powerful as CoPs and PLCs can be, we should not neglect the importance of studying and reflecting individually or in isolation as part of the learning process.  Many great ideas are born upon individual reflection (think of those moments when you figure something out in the shower or on your commute).  However, it could be argued that at least some of these ideas are a result of our reflections about interactions with peers.

The following is a short video about the stages of implementing a PLC in an educational setting.  Alma Harris- Building Professional Learning Communities

Clearly, teaching in isolation is more difficult and likely does not have the same results as teaching that is influenced by PLCs.  Adams writes that, “…sharing ideas and teaching strategies, and working together…(gives) students the best education possible” (2009, p.2).   Solving problems that occur in the classroom will likely be more successful when brainstormed with individuals with different experiences (Adams, 2009, p.2).  Adams writes that PLCs, “essentially (divide) the work of problem solving” (2009, p.3).  Professional Learning Communities also support teaching by, “…(setting) up new teachers for success by providing structure and continuity” (Adams 2009, p.4).  One part of PLCs that seems to be a bit troubling is that they are not, in education, supposed to focus on behavior. Although it is understandable that a professional conversation can easily turn into a complaint session, it seems unreasonable to completely detach teaching and learning from behavior.  Is it not possible that some strategies to reach students that are not successful may sometimes require a change in behavior on the part of the student, the teacher, or both?

 One key component of creating a PLC is creating relational trust.  Relational trust is, ” the extent to which there is consonance with respect to the group’s understanding of its and the other group’s expectations and obligations” (Cranston, 2011, p. 62).  Cranston emphasizes that the relationship among the adults in a school, “…may be the foundation of school effectiveness” (2011, p.60).  Once again, this conclusion seems obvious. Just as students who do not feel safe and comfortable in school are not likely to take the risks necessary to learn and grow, adults who do not feel safe and comfortable to express their thoughts, ideas and difficulties, in the workplace will not be willing to take the risks necessary to grow as teaching professionals.  Adults in a teaching community need to feel valued both personally and professionally (Cranston, 2009, p. 61).  It would be interesting to find out how relational trust between teachers and students impacts a teacher’s ability to grow.  Teachers may be willing to take risks with a particular group of students and not with others due to this relational trust or lack thereof.  Does this counteract relational trust among adults?  To what degree?
Technology may detract from PLCs if the PLC exists only in a virtual format.  Trust is more easily developed, and I’m sure some would argue cannot develop, without some face-to-face contact.  We are social beings and many feel more comfortable sharing and taking risks with those who we can see and know are real caring and feeling people rather than just words on a page.  In addition, thoughts and ideas that may develop as a result of reactions to facial expression and body language may not occur with certain kinds of technology and may be altered even with the use of video chat technology (let’s be honest, it’s hard to be yourself completely when you see your own face staring back at you!). On the other hand, technology can allow some PLCs to exist that otherwise would not.  For example, some teachers may be the only person in their building, and maybe even in their district, that teach a particular subject (as is the case for the physics teacher in my building).  In this case, technology allows these teachers to connect with others to form a PLC.  In addition, technology can assist in the formation of PLCs by connecting people with similar interests for you.  The paper, Social Learning Networks: Building Mobile Learning Networks Based on Collaborative Services, explains the process of assigning values to people in a social network based on their similar interests, their willingness to communicate via technology and their interactions with one another (Huang, et al. 2010).   Because of the power of collaboration, the authors of this paper argue that finding reliable methods of connecting people with common interests is, “…the most concerned issue of researches at present” (Huang, et al, 2010, p. 78).  They suggest that bringing together individuals from different social networks into communities of practice and then bringing these communities together into COIs (communities of interest) can, “…bring social creativity alive by transcending individual perspectives” (Huang et al., 2010, p. 79). They write, “If users can find those who share the same interests with them and interact with each other, innovation of knowledge and new world would be inspired by collective intelligence” (Huang et al., 2010, p. 79).  I wonder if the use of technology detracts from a person’s willingness to share knowledge in the first place due to it’s inherently untrustworthy nature.  Does this distrust make a system less effective at finding others with whom to share (less effective at helping to create a PLC)?
For my learning activity, I hope to create a genetics lesson that will integrate technology.  I am considering designing the lesson so that it could be used in a flex model school, schools that “….feature an online curriculum that allows individual progress and onsite support” (Ark, 2013).  For more information about flex model schools see click on the following.
I really think that this type of learning is very promising, allowing some students to advance more quickly than in today’s traditional high schools while still providing support for other learners.  I hope to integrate online reading, videos and learning activities that allow students to “work with” aspects of genetics that are too small to be seen and/or too difficult or expensive to be done (maybe karyotyping or DNA fingerprinting) in a regular high school.
I really think that this type of learning is very promising, allowing some students to advance more quickly than in today’s traditional high schools while still providing support for other learners.  I hope to integrate online reading, videos and learning activities that allow students to “work with” aspects of genetics that are too small to be seen and/or too difficult or expensive to be done (maybe karyotyping or DNA fingerprinting) in a regular high school.
One question that I have about flex model learning would be how hands on activities or labs can be scheduled.  With learners at various points in their lessons, I am not sure that it would be possible to have students completing these types of experiences at a time when they are most valuable to the progression of their learning if they are all in different spots.  Will there need to be a restructuring of how teaching staff are utilized or scheduled in order to accommodate these different paces?  In addition, will maximum time requirements need to be set?  Learning at your own pace only seems acceptable if some lower limit for this pace is set.  How can we encourage students to exceed this lower limit?  Does each student need to have an individual expected pace set for him or her?  Should students have input into this process?
Bouchard, Jennifer (2012). EDU520 Unit 3 CoP, PLC. retrieved from       http://youtu.be/6Pg3cx7dW1U
Adams, Caralee. (2009).  The power of collaboration. Instructor.  119(1), 28-31.
Ark, Tom Vander (2013). How online learning is saving and improving rural high shools. Getting Smart.  Retrieved from http://gettingsmart.com/cms/blog/2013/01/how-online-learning-is-saving-and-improving-rural-high-schools/
Cranston, Jerome. (2011).  Relational trust:The glue that binds a professional learning community.  Alberta Journal of Educational Research.  57(1), 59-72.
Haris, Alma. (2010).   Building professional learning communities. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4iBzFyWPUQ
Huang, Jeff J.S., Yang, Stephen J. H., Huang, Yueh-Min and Hsiao, Indy Y. T.  (2010).  Social learning networks: Building mobile learning networks based on collaborative services.  Educational Technology & Society.  13(3), 78-92.

4 thoughts on “CoPs and PLCs…an obvious choice

  1. Hi Mary! You pose a wonderful question about technology and the mistrust it brings to the internet. I do believe that it makes creating sincere connections that are necessary in a group like a PLC very difficult, as the nature of the internet is widely known to be full of unreliable sources. Because of this reason, when online chat rooms first opened when I was younger, I was always warned to be careful. This sense of distrust is always with you when you do your banking, when you read your email, etc. For a PLC to develop deep trust over the internet, I would imagine a personal connection inside the group would have to be made. Possibly video-conferencing or at least phone conversations where a better assessment of one another can be made. Overall, I find that the strongest group of teachers who share ideas together will come from those that meet in person and belong to the same school. Not only are these teachers able to personally connect, but they face the same students from similar backgrounds. Instructors that teach in a school together typically experience similar difficulties. Sharing these student complications or problems can bring the teachers closer together as a united front toward better education.

    • Thanks, Daria. A link on your page? Double thanks! I don’t even know how to do that yet. I learn this stuff at a snails pace :)

      Mary

  2. Very well written blog post! I am curious about how you would respond to the questions posed at the end? Do you think there is a way to balance all of that out?

    • I guess lab experiences would have to be planned in advance and students would have to be sure to have the reading and activities that lead up the the lab experience done prior. This may be difficult for some students who are not so good at managing their time. The other option would be for different teachers to run labs on several different days so that students at different stages could do the lab at whatever time fits their learning pace best. However, knowing how teenagers (as well as adults) procrastinate, I’d be afraid that the time offered last would be in high demand. In this case, there would have to be some type of sign up involved as safety laws do not allow any amount of students in a lab room (or any room for that matter).
      I think that the restructuring of staff could make for an interesting experiment. Currently, in my state, teenagers attend school from anywhere between 7 and 8 am to 2 or 3 pm. Many already think that this does not jive well with the sleep habits of this group. Maybe online or hybrid learning could allow for some more flexibility?
      The question of due dates/pacing for assignments is very complicated especially when considering individualize education plans (IEPs) that are used with special education students and will soon be required for all students in my state. I would imagine that, as is the case now, some students will be allowed to turn in assignments at a later date than the average student. Keeping track of these time difference will hopefully be easier when computers are used on a regular basis. I think that students should have some input into the process of setting their pace as it might give some of them more ownership of their education.

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